The Ivy League's regular season is intriguing by nature. Without a conference tournament to grant an NCAA tournament automatic bid, the 14-game schedule takes on more meaning than the standard combination of seeding and pride. Throw in the fact that the single-bid conference boasts a tight race for first place, and you could make a case for the Ivy as one of the most interesting conferences in the nation.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the league as a whole is "up" this year. A quick perusal of KenPom.com finds the Ivy League ranked 16th in average team Pomeroy rating, its highest standing since at least 2003, the first season with available ratings. The credit for that should go to an uncharacteristically strong top two teams and a solid five-team bundle hanging around near .500. In fact if Harvard (currently 79th) and Princeton (104th) both end up in the nation's top 100, it would be the first time the Ivy has placed two teams in that group in the past nine years.
Is Cambridge now officially a hoops hotbed?
Through games of February 20, conference games only
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
W-L Pace PPP Opp. PPP EM
1. Harvard 9-1 64.2 1.13 0.98 +0.15
2. Princeton 8-1 62.8 1.05 0.93 +0.12
3. Penn 5-4 67.8 1.03 0.99 +0.04
4. Yale 5-5 65.3 0.99 0.98 +0.01
5. Cornell 3-7 66.5 1.07 1.08 -0.01
6. Columbia 5-5 66.1 0.99 1.03 -0.04
7. Brown 3-7 70.5 1.01 1.05 -0.04
8. Dartmouth 1-9 65.3 0.88 1.08 -0.20
AVG. 66.1 1.02
The Ivy League title will go through Princeton or Harvard this season, that much is almost certain. The Crimson boasts the conference's top record and efficiency margin on the heels of a blowout victory at Columbia on Saturday and a Princeton loss to Brown. Harvard also has an easier road to the title in front of it. While Princeton has five games remaining, two of which come on the road against Penn and Harvard, the Crimson stays home against Penn and Princeton and travels for its other two games. The big game on the Ivy League slate is the March 5 showdown between Princeton and Harvard in Cambridge, but the teams' matchups with Penn could come into play as well.
"There's going to be some twists and turns before this is over," said Harvard coach Tommy Amaker after his team's Saturday night victory. "We're trying to stay focused on what we're doing and where we are. That's been our formula, so we'll see how it shakes out in the end."
What's amazing is that Harvard has actually improved this season on offense, sans last year's ultra-guard Jeremy Lin, going from 1.10 points per possession in league play last season to 1.13 this time around. (It should be noted that the estimable Josh Reed, writing in the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, predicted Harvard's offense would endure the loss of Lin without too much trouble. "Scoring shouldn't be a problem for the Crimson." Well played, Josh.)
The Crimson is getting it done from almost everywhere on the court this season, as the team's six most frequently used players all have tallied at least 1.07 points per trip. At 6-8 and 240 pounds, Keith Wright gives the team phenomenal offensive rebounding and scoring down low, while 6-7 Kyle Casey does a lot of things well inside the arc. Columbia on Saturday used its large starting frontcourt (6-6 Asenso Ampim and 7-0 Max Craig) to key on Wright and Casey. The pair got its points down the stretch, but when pressed into action, Harvard's guards took the game over and built a solid lead. Point guard Brandyn Curry and shooting guard Oliver McNally made 10 of 17 shots against Columbia, tallying 27 points.
"We're going to have different guys emerge on different nights," Amaker said afterward. "That's a nice thing for us. That's the beauty of our team right now is having some balance. Our guys are so unselfish that it doesn't matter, as long as it's our color jersey that's scoring."
Conversely Princeton gets the job done on defense. Not quite as much so as last year's 11-3 squad did, but the Tigers are still the league's best defensive team. It's easy to see why: they're big and they play like it. Ian Hummer, Dan Mavraides, Kareem Maddox and Patrick Saunders all grab more than 11 percent of the available defensive rebounds apiece, effectively ending opponents' possessions after one shot. The Tigers are also the best shot blockers in the Ivy League.
Entering Saturday's loss at Brown, Princeton had yielded more than a point per possession just once in conference play (Yale scored 63 points in 62 trips). The middling offense of Brown somehow pulled 75 points out of 66 possessions on Saturday, ending the Tigers' run as the nation's longest-tenured in-conference unbeaten.
A crowded middle
Penn and Columbia have improved since last season while Yale and Brown have stayed their so-so selves, thus helping to offset Cornell's precipitous decline from the Sweet 16 to somewhere a bit below the Ivy League average.
Penn's a fairly clear No. 3 in the Ivy hierarchy, playing slightly above average on both ends of the floor so far this season. The Quakers will probably finish .500 or better in Ivy League play for the first time since 2008 on the shoulders of 39 percent three-point shooting and a trio of steal-happy guards in Zack Rosen, Miles Cartwright and Tyler Bernardini.
Yale's almost as good as Penn, and much more focused on scoring inside. Greg Mangano, a 6-10 junior, has blossomed into one of the conference's best bigs (15 and 12 Friday against Princeton), and Jeremiah Kreisberg is one of the Ivy's better offensive rebounders.
Cornell has plummeted back to earth in the post-Wittman-Dale-Foote-Donahue era, losing 0.11 PPP on offense and 0.16 PPP on defense from last year's in-conference totals. The fact that the Big Red remains just a hair shy of the break-even mark speaks to how truly dominant this team was last season.
Columbia has an interesting combination of talented guards (Noruwa Agho, Brian Barbour, Steve Frankoski) and super-sized bigs (the aforementioned Ampim and Craig) that has pushed it into the competitive middle of the league. The Lions didn't put up much of a fight this weekend against Harvard (0.76 PPP) as Agho went 2-for-12 from the field.
Brown's notable for its relatively breakneck pace (more than 70 possessions per 40 minutes -- in the Ivy!) and its Saturday upset of previously unblemished Princeton. Senior forward Peter Sullivan did in the Tigers with his 26-point outburst in the 75-65 victory. If you're a fan of havoc, mark your calendar: Brown hosts Harvard this Friday, giving it a chance to mess stuff up for both of the conference's elite.
And finally, Dartmouth
Dartmouth brought in a new coach mid-season last year, but its results haven't been much better this season. The Big Green have been outscored by one-fifth of a point per possession by Ivy competition in the first year of Paul Cormier's second stint as Dartmouth coach. Make no mistake, the Big Green is a long way from being competitive. Its most active offensive player, Tyler Melville, sports a sub-40 effective FG percentage.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at AsherFusco.